Not far from where I grew up, there is a well-celebrated hiking path called “Sunfish Pond.” The path lies on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Water Gap and it’s called Sunfish Pond because that is the reward waiting for your at the summit. It’s over seven miles to the top, uphill the entire way. You have to climb up and over huge boulders and skirt the edges of cliffs, but when you finally make it to the top you’re rewarded with an untouched freshwater lake that’s clear enough to see through. The waters of the pond are fed from a spring deep within the mountains and even in the depths of summer it’s ice cold. Back then, when people weren’t so squeamish about these sorts of things, we would take our water bottles, swim as deep as we could and refill them. We would drink the lake water to refresh ourselves on the easier trail we took to get back down.
I’ve done this hike more times than I can count. On the trail I’ve seen doe, bucks, fawns, and even a few bears, whom, when we saw them, we simply turned and walked the other way as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. Growing up, we hiked this trail frequently taking the hard way up and the easier way down.
One year, when I was eleven, I went hiking with my friend Marie*, her dad Tom, and our friend Megan. We were running around, like kids in wide open spaces are wont do, acting reckless and silly. I can remember running towards something, maybe it was towards where Tom was, or maybe I was just running for the thrill of it. But I clearly remember running and laughing with Megan following at my heels. There was a curve in the trail and when I went to pivot, my foot hit a gathering of loose stones and I slipped over the edge.
My baser instincts saved me, my right arm reached out and grabbed a sturdy sapling that grew out over the gorge over which I was dangling. The rock floor was probably thirty feet below me and there was a waterfall to my left, but it was too far away to attempt a jump. So I hung there, unable to pull myself up. If I fell, well, I don’t know if I would have died, but I certainly would have broken many things.
I remember panicking. Yelling out not words, but just wordless shouts to indicate that I was in trouble. I looked up and there was Megan, leaning over the gorge.
“I’ll go and get Tom,” she said, her voice just on this side of crying.
“No,” I begged. “Just give me your arm and help me up.”
“I should go and get Tom,” she repeated.
“Just give me your hand,” I begged again. And she did. Together we managed to pull me back up onto the path. We laid on the ground in a heap, both of us shaking uncontrollably, until that shaking turned into laughter as we realized what I had just survived.
Megan was troubled, that’s what all the adults said, but we knew better. Megan’s house was troubled. Her step dad was mean, her mother was uninvolved. When middle school came, we parted ways. Megan started hanging out with older kids and considered the kind of things Marie I wanted to do childish and immature.
She and I had an epic junior high falling out, part of which involved a very mean note from me and a trip to the principal’s office. A hard, but effective, way to learn to be careful what you put in writing. She and I stopped speaking to each other, and when my parents divorced I transferred to a different high school a town over.
Throughout high school Megan ran away more than once with various boyfriends in tow. She normally stayed at an inn called Mountain Manor about six miles from where we lived. Eventually, Mountain Manor closed and she stopped coming home. She didn’t graduate from high school. Marie would get infrequent updates about her and would pass them along to me. She had two kids, maybe more, and then she got into heroin. Two years ago, she disappeared.
She might be alive. She might be dead. No one knows. Her parents have not hung up fliers or organized any search parties. She is officially listed as missing. Somewhere between then and now Megan wandered off the path and no one has seen her in a long time.
I was driving to visit my father a few weeks ago and we drove past Mountain Manor. When I was younger it had been a destination spot with a golf courses, swimming pools, an indoor ice skating rink and more. Now, it’s a pile of modern ruins. The buildings still stand, but the windows are boarded up and tall grass grows on the golf course. Every time I pass those modern day ruins, I think about Megan staying there after running away, we had all laughed at her about that, about running away to a place that was only a few miles from your house. But we didn’t understand then that her running away was more about the idea of freedom than the actual distance.
I think about falling over that gorge all the time. I think that I should have been nicer to Megan, tried more, apologized after our silly middle school fight. But I was young, and where circumstance had forced Megan to grow up quickly, I clung to childhood longer.
I always think that I’ll see her. I’ll turn a corner and she’ll be there, needing a place to stay and I wonder what I’ll do if that happens. But most likely, if she is still alive, Megan hasn’t thought about me in years. I doubt she would even remember that hiking trip from twenty years ago, but she saved my life and I was never able to repay her for that and I doubt I ever will.
*Names have been changed.